ONCE UPON A TIME....
From The Skeptical Review
Pages 7-9: summer 1993

By Farrell Till

Christian fundamentalists dismiss as liberal nonsense any interpretation of scriptures that is based on the existence of myths and legends in the biblical text, yet they themselves often take doctrinal positions that reflect a fairy-tale view of the Bible.

An example would be the miracles-have-ceased doctrine that is taught by all but the charismatic (Pentecostal and Holiness) churches. The New Testament describes a first-century church in which Christians could speak in tongues, prophesy, heal the sick, and even raise the dead. Such charismatic practices were apparently so commonplace in the early church that the Apostle Paul saw the need to regulate them in 1 Corinthians 14.

Bible fundamentalists generally reject the claims of the charismatic groups who teach that miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit still exist. No inerrantist would say, however, that such gifts were not given to the early Christians; they simply say that they no longer exist. They even have a scripture to quote in support of their position: quot;Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away quot; (1 Cor. 13:8-10). Fundamentalists who quote this passage to prove the cessation of miraculous gifts would argue that quot;that which is perfect quot; was the completely revealed word of God or New Testament, which has now come, so the miraculous gifts present in the early church have now ceased. In this, they betray their fairy-tale mentality, because they believe that miraculous gifts existed once upon a time but that now they don't.

Except for the charismatics who believe that miracles still exist, if a modern day fundamentalist experiences an illness, he will seek medical advice. However, this was not the way it was done in New Testament times. Jesus went about casting out devils that presumably possessed people and caused all kinds of physical and mental ailments. Those who were mute (Mt. 9:32), blind (Mt. 12:22), epileptic (Mt. 17:14-18), and mentally ill (Mk. 5:1-16) were thought to be demon-possessed, and Jesus healed them by casting out the demons.

Again with the possible exception of ultraconservative charismatics, Christian fundamentalists today do not believe in demon possession. Few would even consider taking a deaf, blind, or epileptic child to an exorcist to cast out the devils causing the affliction. They do, however, believe that demons were active in human affairs in New Testament times, a position they must take or else risk making their blessed redeemer look pretty foolish. In this, their fairy-tale mentality is very much in evidence again. Once upon a time, devils possessed human beings but not anymore.

This hermeneutic approach to the Bible becomes a convenient catch-all solution to many problem situations in the Bible. In Genesis 9:13-17, for example, we are told that after the flood, God put a rainbow in the sky as a sign of his promise never to destroy the world again by water. To the prescientific minds of the time when this was written, it probably sounded pretty convincing. We know today, however, that rainbows are caused by the refraction of sunlight by rain or mist. Knowing this, the modern mind quite naturally is inclined to ask how the rainbow in Genesis 9 could have in any sense been understood as a sign of God's covenant with Noah, because many rainbows must have been seen in the sky before the flood.

Bible fundamentalists have a once-upon-a-time explanation for this problem. They argue that it had never rained on the earth until the flood. How then did crops grow and people obtain fresh drinking water? The answer is in the Bible, they tell us. quot;There went up a mist from the earth and watered the whole face of the ground quot; (Gen. 2:6), but rain as we know it simply didn't exist until the flood. So once upon a time, we are assured, it didn't rain on the earth. One wonders just how the sun shined on the earth for so long without causing that mist on the ground to evaporate and form clouds that eventually brought rain, but to the fundamentalist this is nothing to fret about, because anything can happen in fairy tales.

Modern medicine, despite all the progress it has made in recent years, can give us a lifespan of only 70 some years. Just a relative few live beyond the century mark. Biblical characters, however, routinely lived much longer than the rare centenarians of our time. The patriarch Abraham lived to be 175 (Gen. 25:7), and his son Isaac 180 (Gen. 35:28). Jacob lived 147 years (Gen. 47:28), Levi 137 (Ex. 6:16), Kohath 133 (Ex. 6:18), and the list could go on and on. These ages, although incredibly long by modern standards, were quite short compared to the ages that the Bible attributes to their ancestors. The Genesis 5 genealogy contains a list of patriarchs who routinely lived over 900 years. Methuselah, of course, lived 969 years (v:27), whereas his son Lamech died a mere youngster at the age of 777 (v:31).

If you ask a Bible fundamentalist if these were literal ages, he will tell you without even batting an eyelash that they were. In quot;The Bible, Science, and the Age of Patriarchs, quot; an article in the May 1992 issue of Reason & Revelation, Dr. Bert Thompson discussed various attempts to assign figurative interpretations to these ages but concluded that they were intended to be understood as literal ages. Dr. Thompson didn't attempt to explain why people lived so long in those days when it is a medical struggle for people in modern times to live even a tenth as long, but this is apparently no problem for the fundamentalist mind. Once upon a time, people routinely lived for 900 years; now they don't.

We have to consider too the frequent appearances that God made in biblical days. He was always dropping in unannounced to chew the fat with Abraham (Gen. 15:1-17; 17:1-21; 18:1-32) and the other patriarchs (Gen. 28:10- 15; 35:1; 46:2-4) or even to do a little wrestling (32:24-30). God appeared to Moses in a burning bush (Ex. 3:4) and again on Mt. Sinai (Ex. 19:20-22). If we accept the Bible at face value, divine appearances in those days were almost as common as dirt. We could fill a page with scripture citations that tell us God appeared to so-and-so in a dream. If someone today claims that God has appeared to him, we try to get psychiatric help for him. If someone 3,000 years ago claimed that God appeared to him, we believe him and call him a prophet.

Inerrantists have a response to all this. They tell us that God had a plan that he was working on in biblical times that required him to appear to people but that now his plan is complete, so he doesn't need to do this anymore. However, it all amounts to the same kind of fairy-tale hooey: once upon a time God appeared to people but not anymore.

In an earlier article ( quot;If It Walks Like a Duck..., The Skeptical Review, Autumn 1991, pp. 2-6), I said in reference to the sons-of-God / daughters-of-men issue in Genesis 6:1-4 that if a story looks like mythology, sounds like mythology, and reads like mythology, one is safe in concluding that it is mythology. The same principle is true of the once-upon-a-time mentality so characteristic of fundamentalist attempts to explain away serious problems in the Bible text. Once upon a time happens in fairy tales but not in real life. We can only conclude, then, that much of the Bible does not reflect what happened in the real life of the times that we read about in it. After all, if the emissary of an allegedly inspired book like the Avesta, the Koran, or the Book of Mormon could resolve contrary-to-fact problems in his quot;inspired quot; text only by telling us that once upon a time it was this way but not anymore, who in our society would believe him? Why then should we accept the same intellectual insult from those who want to sell us the far-fetched idea of an inerrant Bible.


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